Apollo 13

Movie: Directed by Ron Howard.

Inciting Event: After being bumped up from backup to the official Apollo 13 launch crew, Jim Lovell and his crew learn their pilot will be barred from the mission under suspicion of measles. Jim, who is desperate to walk on the moon, makes the call to go without him, using the backup pilot in his stead.

Although the team’s change in status from backup to official launch crew is certainly what puts them on their trajectory toward the main conflict in the Second Act, note how the timing of the Inciting Event (halfway through the First Act) neatly emphasizes the real point of the story, which is not the mission but all the many things that will go wrong with the mission.

First Plot Point: Jim and his crew literally leave the Normal World when they successfully launch from Cape Canaveral into outer space. Although it seems insignificant at the time, they immediately experience their first hiccup when their fifth engine blinks out.

First Pinch Point: During a routine stirring of the oxygen tanks, something malfunctions and the oxygen tanks explode, endangering all three astronauts’ lives and all but crippling their ship.

The structure here is interesting. This event is clearly the point of the story and therefore the first real introduction to the main conflict. And yet, it takes place at the First Pinch Point instead of the First Plot Point. This would be a risky pacing decision in some stories, but it works here for two reasons:

  1. Both the First Plot Point and the First Pinch Point still efficiently perform their most important jobs, respectively: removing the protagonist from the Normal World and emphasizing the antagonistic force and the stakes.
  2. A skillful use of subtle but foreboding foreshadowing right on up to the First Pinch Point keeps the pacing tight and the story focused even before the main conflict comes into plain view.

Midpoint: The astronauts circle the moon, using its gravity to slingshot them back toward Earth. In itself, this is a quiet moment in the story, but it’s perfectly symbolic, both as an intense and beautiful moment in itself, but also in that it creates a literal and visual shift in the story’s trajectory: in the first half, the astronauts were headed away from Earth; now, in the second half, they turn around and head back toward Earth.

This is also where we get a shift in the mindsets of all the involved characters, both the astronauts in the shuttle and the control team back in Houston. Instead of flailing around in panicked reactions, they now begin to steadily and calmly take charge of “working the problem.”

Additionally, we get a nice Moment of Truth from the protagonist Lovell, who here realizes he must give up on his dream of landing on the moon, in exchange for the more important goal of “going home.”

Second Pinch Point: The control team in Houston realize the astronauts are in danger of dying from carbon monoxide poisoning, and everyone rushes to jerry-rig a solution to filter the air in the shuttle.

Comparatively, this is a very low-key moment in the overall story—nothing more than one of many speed bumps on the astronauts’ return home. But because of the way it is paced and timed, it creates exactly the right “pinch” by emphasizing the high stakes the astronauts face every moment they remain in space.

Third Plot Point: The Third Plot Point is relatively low-key here. The astronauts make a complicated and risky ten-second burn to properly align for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. This clearly signals the shift into the action of the Third Act. It is not, however, much of a low point, which is common in disaster stories, in which the “worst possible thing” happens early in the story and can’t be topped.

Climax: The astronauts initiate re-entry, not knowing if their preparations will work or not. As with many of the best Climaxes, this is an isolated “episode” of its own, completely focused on one cohesive idea.

Climactic Moment: The astronauts safely re-enter the atmosphere and splash down in the ocean.

Resolution: The crew is taken aboard ship, while Lovell offers a voiceover epilogue of his and some of the other characters’ post-mission lives.

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